City Votes Against Airport Project
Lebanon — The Lebanon Municipal Airport runway expansion saga has finally drawn to a close.
The City Council voted 5-3 last night against lengthening the southern end of the north-south runway by 1,000 feet and lowering the elevation of a nearby hill by 30 feet, measures that federal regulators deemed necessary for the safety of aircraft.
The project would have also required the removal of 800,000 cubic-yards of rock and soil over two-plus years of work, leading to an influx of heavy truck traffic along Route 12A and one of the residential neighborhoods near the airport.
The council’s vote came in the form of support for an alternative option to make minor runway adjustments and invite the Federal Aviation Administration to outline new steps that would be taken to bring the airport back into regulatory compliance. Mayor Georgia Tuttle, along with city councilors Heather Collier Vogel and Karen Liot Hill, voted against that proposal.
The heart of the debate on the runway issue last night centered around the data, or lack thereof, that city councilors had at their disposal, and whether it was enough to make an informed decision. The cost of the project also appeared to make some councilors balk.
“I don’t think that adding another $20 million to our tab on the airport is a good idea,” said City Councilor Bruce Bronner.
The city’s 7.5-percent share of the cost in the runway expansion project could have run as high as $1.3 million, with the total cost expected to range between $13.3 million and $23.2 million. The FAA would have covered 90 percent of the project’s cost, while the state of New Hampshire would have picked up the tab for another 2.5 percent.
Before the final vote, Liot Hill asked the council to pass a motion deferring the decision in order to give the city time to complete an “Airport Master Plan,” a document that would gather more data and for which councilors have expressed a desire to see finished.
Assistant Mayor Steve Wood countered that last night’s vote did not preclude a master plan from being developed.
“We do need a master plan, but this sort of indefinite deferral of action is a bad idea,” he said.
City Councilor Nicole Cormen remarked that the alternative plan offered the governing body a chance to “do it right.”
Cormen said that the Environmental Assessment, a city-compiled package that outlined and justified the need for the project, was a “very disappointing document” because it did not include a credible fiscal analysis of the airport or even finalized routes for the trucks that would be removing rock and soil from airport property.
“There are a number of things that were not studied,” said Cormen. Airport Manager Rick Dyment said late last month that if the alternative option was chosen, trees would still need to be cleared and the hill to the south of the runway would “possibly” need to be reduced for aircraft safety. The FAA is still requiring the airport to shorten the length of the east-west runway by 250 feet on each end.
On a separate, but related, runway safety project that would clear 30 acres of trees along the southern portion of the east-west runway bordering Poverty Lane deemed to be “obstructions” for aircraft, the City Council voted nearly unanimously to go forward with the project, with only City Councilor Erling Heistad in support of a motion that would have taken the project off the table.
Wood, who owns property that borders the airport and runs an orchard there, recused himself from the vote mid-discussion, but not at the request of other city councilors who had asked him to step down before the discussion began.
Cormen and Liot Hill both said it was a conflict of interest for Wood to be involved in the discussion, but Wood contended that the project did not have a material effect on him or his business. He added that if such an issue arose, he would step down, and lived up to that promise after it was revealed that the trucking routes associated with the soil and rock removal could directly impact his business.
Most of the councilors were reluctant to back the tree-clearing project, but the council technically endorsed it in December when councilors approved the funding as part of a capital improvements plan.
Although several councilors have said that they were not aware of the implications of the December decision, the potential financial impacts of the council balking at the project after the fact were nonetheless cloudy.
“I’m concerned about our liability if we don’t do this project, and if we don’t do anything ... the FAA can take away all of our federal money in the future, and that concerns me,” said Tuttle.
Councilors last night discussed the possibility of an alternative plan to the tree-cutting, which would have placed lights anywhere from 90 to 160 feet high in order to mark the trees for landing aircraft at a cost of $4.6 million. They also discussed a study of risk and safety issues, but the study could have cost as much as $100,000 which was ultimately too much for city representatives to stomach.
Ben Conarck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Tuesday, April 23 edition of the Valley News:
It would cost up to $100,000 to do a study of risk and safety issues at the Lebanon Municipal Airport, and Lebanon City Councilor Karen Liot Hill argued that lengthening the north-south runway at the airport would prevent a loss of revenue. An article in Thursday's Valley News incorrectly described the nature of the study, and an article the next day inaccurately characterized Liot Hill's argument.